Riku Tamminen is not a household name. He comes from a small town in Finland and has made several iOS games on his own, but he's never relied on game development as a career. In fact, until recently Riku spent his days in a factory, assembling mining equipment to support his family and his now 7-month-old baby. He's hoping to change all that, however, with his new action-puzzler game called Mugsters, which has been unveiled today at EGX. Luckily for Tamminen, his new title caught the eye of Worms and The Escapists publisher Team17.
Mugsters, Tamminen's first-ever PC/console effort, is a quirky fast-paced game that is somewhat reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto 2, before the series became a blockbuster 3D franchise.
"Games like GTA 2 and Death Rally are definitely big [inspirations] here," he tells me. "Many people have mentioned that the game reminds them of Blast Corps on Nintendo 64. I've never played that one, so I really must get my hands on that one at some point.
"I remember our father had this VHS set of the late '60s series 'The Invaders,' which had this really minimalist, running away from a UFO box art; the look and colours were so perfect and simple... [it] definitely left a mark. The particle trails are also definitely inspired by the trails that Bugs Bunny leaves when fast traveling!"
"Never be afraid to use scripting assets, especially when they already have thousands of happy customers behind them!"
Tamminen has always enjoyed working solo, overseeing the complete vision for his projects. It's not easy to teach yourself everything that's needed to make a game, but with each successive mobile game, he's managed to learn new aspects of development. To be able to handle art, coding, sound and more is challenging, to say the least.
"What I've found the most efficient way has been to pick a small project and start learning from there. It just becomes so much more interesting when you're primarily solving a problem, not just trying to memorize things. When making enough small games with different styles and mechanics, you're always learning something new along the way," he says.
Art and 3D design has always been an interest for Tamminen, so those came almost naturally to him, but programming was a lot tougher. Thankfully, modern tools for developers are making things better and better.
He continues, "As a visual guy, code was definitely the biggest obstacle, since I can't wrap my head around all the special characters etc, but thanks to things like Unity, which provides a superb engine itself, and assets like uScript, which is a visual scripting add-on, my life has been made so much easier and I can focus on maintaining a nice flow for development. Never be afraid to use scripting assets, especially when they already have thousands of happy customers behind them!"
As for incorporating sound, Tamminen says he's admired and learned a lot from seeing how foley artists in movies handle sound creation: "Things they do are so entertaining even just to watch. Things like making a fruit salad or breaking any materials you can find on your own, while recording everything at the same time. Fantastic stress relief!"
Speaking of stress, before Team17 came along, Tamminen would work his normal day job and then attempt to continue his game projects at night. "So now I can focus full-time on the game and still spend the evenings with my family," he says. "That is a dream come true already and I'm not planning or hoping on going back with careers."
"We look at thousands of games and sign very few as we are determined to get this as right as possible... Sustainability is our No.1 priority for our partners"
Tamminen is grateful to be partnering with Team17, and apparently the feeling is mutual. He says he used to play the Worms games all the time and is excited to be on their label. On the other side, this isn't a charity case; Team17 is giving Tamminen and Mugsters its full promotional backing because the publisher truly believes in the potential of the title. If anything, Team17 CEO Debbie Bestwick tells us that the company's label is actually becoming more selective now.
"It's actually really hard to get on our label these days," she says. "We look at thousands of games and sign very few as we are determined to get this as right as possible and that takes a lot of pre- and post-launch work by lots of people. Sustainability is our No.1 priority for our partners.
"We care, and I don't say that lightly - we really care about the future for Riku. We can't guarantee success but we can guarantee we will give Riku and his game every chance of success. We've removed the financial worries for Riku for the next few years. That allows his family not to worry and he can focus on making his game. The rest comes down to a great game and a lot of hard work for everyone."
For Bestwick and the publishing label at Team17, up-and-coming developers like Tamminen are every bit as important as more established game creators. After all, new talent is the lifeblood of the industry - it's important that fresh faces can succeed.
"We built our label...to help fellow established game creators retain IP ownership and build for sustainability, but equally we have a passion to help bring through raw talent or as we call them the next generation of games makers no matter what their background," she continues. "In the case of Mugsters, Riku falls into the latter camp; we see his raw talent.
"We have a rule here at Team17 that anyone who is associated with the company, be it employees or label partners, can submit a game for consideration to our label. Mugsters was simply spotted by our team. Both The Escapists and Sheltered are former Incubation projects (Incubation is a Team17 programme that helps smaller developers to create their games) as will be Mugsters in terms of the way Riku works with all areas of our company and the access he has to everyone no matter what area.
"We get asked all the time why a certain game appeals to us and it's simple: we like fun games and Mugsters oozes that. From the first time we had the game in the studio and saw the reaction from others it was obvious the game has the potential to be another gem."
As raw talent, Tamminen may have demonstrated that he has the chops to make a fun game, but he fully admits that business is not his forte. Like so many other indies, he doesn't have the marketing knowledge and savvy necessary to help his game stand out in an overcrowded market. That said, Tamminen is almost relieved to get away from the bursting-at-the-seams App Store.
"Coming out of mobile, this feels fine," he says, "but at the same time I know that only a great game won't be enough. I'm happy to have Team17 with me on this one. They have so much more knowledge on these things than me, so I'm not half as scared as I would be when fully solo."
"All the stories that you hear and the games you play by these studios are super motivating and since Finland is quite a small place...It makes you think that great things can happen in your neighbourhood"
Bestwick adds, "We're bringing the skillset of AAA marketing into the indie area along with our franchise knowledge... Building a brand is a key focus for Team17 and our partners today.
"We believe it's what aids sustainability and is part of the reason Team17 only launched two new IPs last year and two this year; it takes time and proper investment to build long-term brand value. Riku has the same brand, communications and overall team that worked on Overcooked last year and The Escapists 2 this year and there is a very good reason for that. We believe Mugsters is very special."
Finland has become a hotbed for great game development in recent years, with the likes of Supercell, Rovio, Remedy, RedLynx, Housemarque and more surrounding Tamminen. While he's not had a chance to meet with any of those fine studios, Tamminen believes the one trait that all Finnish designers share is pure passion for the art of game creation. It's been inspiring for him to see so much talent in his own country.
"I remember playing tons of MS DOS games and always finding out that so many of them were made by Finnish people and thinking, 'That is so cool, I wish I'd have the know-how to do games someday.' All the stories that you hear and the games you play by these studios are super motivating and since Finland is quite a small place, the success of others feels so real. It makes you think that great things can happen in your neighbourhood also."